Everybody gets sick or injured every now and then, and I’ve had a pretty rough winter so far in that regard which has got me thinking about how I train when sick. In this post I’ll lay out my general principles for dealing with the problem and let me apologise in advance if it ever comes across as me whining about the flu. I really don’t mind getting ill, and I’m generally very lucky with my health.
Let’s start with the overarching principle: health comes first. This is directly drawn from one of my Seven Principles of Mastery: “no injuries”. If training makes you worse, don’t do it! (You’d be amazed how often that rule is broken by people who should know better.) I train for the long-term benefits, not for the short-term buzz.
With injuries, the trick is to modify your training to encourage recovery. My latest injury, just before Christmas (of course!) was yet another round of problems with my thoracic and cervical spine; every time I pressed even a small kettlebell above my shoulder, the right side of my neck would seize up in agony. No fun. So I went to the physio, and together we worked out a series of mobility and stability exercises that should restore mobility to the stuck bits, and restore stability to the hyper-mobile bits, and after three weeks of not being able to lift so much as a tennis ball over my head, I was back in business. So I immediately starting hoisting my biggest bell over my head, and the problem came right back. Or, that’s what I would have done when I was younger and stupider. Instead, I stalked my strength like it was a skittish colt. I very, very gently made sure that the full range of the motion was available, then slowly, slowly, added weight back on, all the while paying attention to keeping up the exercises that had restored the movement. The slightest twinge, and I’d stop. Now, three goddam months later, I’m back where I was three months ago.
But if I’d rushed it, I’d still be injured.
For impact injuries and soft-tissue injuries, the goal is the same but you need to pay attention to the difference between ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain’; good pain you ignore; bad pain, indicating that the injury is being aggravated, you avoid.
The mnemonic I use here is “fuck it, but don’t poke the bear”. Specific neurological pain (such as my neck issue), or pain that indicates an injury is getting worse, is like a sleeping grizzly: the goal is to keep it asleep until it dies of starvation. But all the rest? Fuck it.
So what about sickness? I have a very strong sense of the difference between a “walking cold” and a “systemic cold”. A walking cold is one with local symptoms; I might cough, or have a sore throat, or a headache, or whatever else, but the rest of me is basically ok. A systemic cold is when I can’t distinguish the boundaries of the illness, my whole body feel wretched. My goal with a walking cold is to prevent it becoming systemic. Here the principle I follow, along the lines of “no injuries”, is to pay close attention to how I feel right after doing any particular activity. Energy up is good, energy down is bad. “Avoid fatigue” might be another way to put it. So a little light stretching to preserve range of movement, leaving me feeling a bit better is ok; but if doing a push-up makes me feel tired, I’ll stop doing push-ups.
You read that right. Yes, there are times when I stop doing push-ups. Rare, but it does happen.
My first indication that my bout with tag-teaming viruses this winter was something I should pay attention to was when my cold shower in the morning left me feeling chilled to the bone, not invigorated. And yes, I did stop doing them, and gently worked my way back to them.
I’ve noticed that when my system is under attack from some horrid virus I do best by avoiding anything that elevates my heart rate more than a few extra beats per minute. So I might do one light lift, and stop. Swing a sword for a minute or so, and stop. Over the last few months when I’ve been hit by virus after virus (I’ve not been 100% well a single day since Christmas), I haven’t touched the deadlift bar. But I’ve been practising my deadlifts for a couple of minutes about three times a week, using just a stick. So the technique and range of motion is there, and, just last Friday, started back by picking up about half the weight I maxed out on last time I did them properly (before Christmas). Don’t poke the bear.
Most of the time, when I’m ill, it’s a walking cold; I can move around a bit, do light stuff, and not get sicker. But when or if it goes systemic, I have to be super-careful, and usually I don’t train at all, just the very lightest of moving about so my spine won’t seize up completely. Specific symptoms respond differently to different exercises. For example, I had a really bad cough for about three weeks in February; during that time, my Wim Hof breathing had to stop because it made me cough. But I could manage the Crane ok. When the cough morphed into a sinus nastiness, the kind where your entire skull becomes completely filled with nothing but snot, Wim Hof breathing was ok and so were some light kettlebells, but some of my meditation practices brought on bad headaches so I cut them out.
The last time I was at WMAW, in 2013, I had a bad walking cold; I was sick as a dog, coughing and feeling like shit, but I could move around. I had travelled all the way to America to fence with my peers. But I didn’t have a single bout with anyone, because I could feel it might trigger the walking cold to become systemic. That’s how seriously I take this.
Health comes first. As Count Rugen says to Prince Humperdinck, “If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything”.
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